Last year saw Hollywood studios determined to push ever onward down the same well-rutted road despite record-setting financial failures. The curtain of generic superhero uniformity still smothered the multiplexes, but it was pierced here and there by little stabs of originality through which hints of a more complicated moral universe flickered. A serious renewal in terms of substance, style, and structure has yet to emerge, but maybe there's hope.
More exciting is the huge number of debuts and breakthroughs in 2016, with major new voices both inside the US and abroad. I call out a few below. My picks are all over the place, and I struggled to spot a pattern. Maybe the only thing they have in common is an ability to sustain deep and opinionated conversations. In a time where the culture wars of the 1960s and 70s have escalated to all-new heights, perhaps that's the best gift cinema can give us.
So without further ado, my top 20 of 2016 (counting down, of course):'
Six Greek men on a yacht obsess over who is best, competing in a bizarre tournament with dubious criteria ranging from how you look when you sleep to building IKEA furniture. A snapshot of contemporary masculinity in self-defeating crisis. Bonus trivia: Chevalier joins K-19: The Widowmaker, The Descent, and The Women (1939) among films featuring exclusively a single gender, but directed by the opposite gender.
19) The Wailing
South Korea's underrated Na Hong-jin serves up a long, dark, and enigmatic horror-mystery about a an ineffective cop investigating a local outbreak: a feverish rash that culminates in violent insanity. He tracks down a Japanese hermit who's either perpetrator or protector. Demons plague the hills. Doubt plagues his heart.
Isabelle Huppert plays Michele Leblanc, a no-nonsense video game designer who has a complicated response to being raped during a traumatic home invasion. Huppert's icy intensity sells a role that should be completely ridiculous; she's the daughter of a serial killer as just one barely-relevant aside. Veteran director Verhoeven learned French in order to direct her.
17) 20th Century Women
Annette Benning, Elle Fanning, and Greta Gerwig are the 20th century (1979, to be specific) women of the title. Collectively they turn in one of the most likable ensemble performances of the year. They shape the life of well-meaning Jamie, based on director Mike Mills as a teenager, who's unfortunately the official "center" of a film that barely needs him. Fortunately the sensitive and funny script rescues this from becoming just another good-guy-coming-of-age nostalgia-fest.
16) Eye in the Sky
The ethics of drone warfare play out via a joint UK-Kenyan anti-terrorist operation. A tense, well-cast, and extremely topical thriller that lives a second life in the debates you'll have afterwards.
15) O.J.: Made in America
A hugely-compelling 467-minute documentary, complete with historical context and in-depth cultural analysis, on orange juice production and distribution in America.
A coming-of-age triptych following one man's early life and first love, with sexual identity, race, and poverty not giving him any easy breaks. Moonlight is a cultural milestone, an underdog award-winning masterpiece, and a beautiful heartfelt story. Best of all, every indication is that director Barry Jenkins is just getting started.
13) The Fits
Toni is an 11-year-old boxer who decides to go in for dance. She watches the older girls: their physical confidence, their tough talk, their feminine sexuality. When an epidemic of unexplained fits creeps across her school, she watches that too. Inspirational sports/music movies take place on the surface, where we literally see and hear everything. The Fits is something else. It operates underneath.
12) The Handmaiden
Sarah Water's Dickensian novel about British con artists, lesbian lovers, and rare books is transposed to 1930s South Korea. This is the sexy, twisty, period piece thriller you didn't know you needed!
11) La La Land
You saw it. You have a strong opinion. It made me smile all over the place, and I hate smiling, so save your "overrated" and "they can't sing/dance" stuff for someone else.
10) Midnight Special
Jeff Nichols, the master of rural noir, my favorite micro-genre, mixes in some sci-fi and road movie to deliver Midnight Special. Two men transport a messianic telekinetic child to a mysterious rendezvous point in the Southern swamplands, while pursued by the NSA and a cult. Dusky cinematography and an accent-infested cast also help.
9) Hell or High Water
Speaking of rural noir! Wikipedia also calls this a "neo-Western" which will do equally well. See this for Jeff Bridges doing full-on Jeff Bridges. Or in case you were ever thinking of robbing a bank in West Texas (TLDR: everyone has a gun). Music by Nick Cave.
8) The Salesman
7) The Witch
Jacqueline Kennedy (portrayed by Natalie Portman) recounts her days in the immediate aftermath of her husband's assassination. Putting Pablo Larrain, a politically-minded Chilean, at the helm of a Kennedy profile is bold (US - Latin America relations being what they were), and partially accounts for the depth and ambiguity rarely seen in patriotic biopics. The formal rigor of the compositions, editing, and sound design are highlights. Discordant music breaks the hermetic seal.
5) Toni Erdmann
So very good, and yet hard to classify or explain. A futile and useless summary: unhappy businesswoman is visited by prankster father. Only slightly better: a character-driven cringe comedy woven from criss-crossing contradictory emotions. Perhaps I had better pitch it based on its unforgettable dinner party scene or as a modernist family drama sustained with wry humor for almost 3 hours primarily on the painfully honest non-chemistry of two non-heroes. Director Maren Ade is another talent to watch.
Towering black extraterrestrial ellipsoids position themselves around the globe. Governments scramble to understand the technology, the intentions, and, most critically, the language of these cryptic visitors. The US military tasks a linguist (Amy Adams) to make meaningful contact. This is the type of ambitious, cerebral, and yet supremely entertaining genre film I miss. A master class in the possibilities of visual storytelling. Denis Villeneuve may be my favorite director at work today; but can he pull off a Blade Runner sequel?
3) The Lobster
2) Manchester by the Sea
Lee (Casey Affleck) inherits custody of his brother's son, teenager Patrick (much-lauded newcomer Kyle Chandler), much to their mutual chagrin. As they bond, they slowly open up. We see the still-raw nerves of Lee's broken past and Patrick's inarticulate hunger for guidance. An uncompromising depiction of grief and getting by, one day at a time. Writer-director Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret) is 3 for 3 in my books.
1) The Forbidden Room
What is this? Your grandpa's old instructional bathing tapes? A recovered crooner-era music video about brain surgery and pygophilia? Why is squid theft the greatest crime? How can a saplingjack (an apprentice lumberjack) just "shows up" aboard a submarine deep below the ocean surface? Are those lithesome skeleton women secretly perpetrating insurance fraud? Can perusing even "The Book of Climaxes" tie this mess together?